But the way the Bucs celebrated following Wednesday evening’s 3-2 triumph over Grand Rapids Catholic Central at Edge Ice Arena, the win might have ranked awfully close.
For one thing, it’s not everyday the Bucs can claim they’ve bested a defending state champion.
“It’s a big, big win for our program,” said Grand Haven coach Dan Gadbois, whose squad improves to 13-4 overall and 6-3 in the O-K Tier 1 Conference. “Catholic Central is the defending state champions in Division 3. We’ve said we want to compete with the best programs out there. We wrote on the board beforehand that this is going to be like a state championship game.”
Grand Haven’s Doug Zelenka played like he was on the big stage, as senior forward provided all of the Bucs’ offense with a hat trick. Still, Grand Haven had to sweat out the final minute and a half with the Cougars trying desperately to find an equalizer with an extra skater and an empty net behind them.
“You could see then what type of players they have,” Gadbois said. “(Catholic Central’s) puck control is just outstanding. We had our five best players on the ice during that stretch and we couldn’t get (the puck cleared). They moved it under a tense situation trying to score, and they moved it all over the ice.
All we could do was take up lanes and stay disciplined. We made them move it around the outside.”
GRCC had three face-offs in the Bucs’ zone during the final 1:18, as well as three shots on goal, but Bucs’ junior goalie Zach Kooi remained cool under pressure.
He totaled 31 saves during the evening.
Gadbois also pointed out some gutsy play during the final minute, as both Zelenka brothers — Doug and Tom — laid out on the ice to block shots, while rugged defensemen Will VerDuin did his part to scrap for the puck and help eat up the clock.
“It was just good, disciplined hockey, really by all of our kids tonight,” Gadbois said.
For the first time this season, Grand Haven did not commit a penalty, while the Cougars were whistled for just two. Physical play never seemed to dictate the game or get out of hand.
Zelenka made GRCC pay for their first penalty whistled late in the first period. His top-shelf effort on Cougars’ goalie Brett Avery found the back of the net.
“Their goalie is outstanding taking away the low shots, so we told the kids to shoot high, and that’s what Doug did,” Gadbois said.
The contest remained at 1-0 through a scoreless second period, but Gadbois said he didn’t expect that score to last for long.
“(GRCC) has too much talent for just one goal to stand,” he said.
Excitement in the third period came at a furious pace. Zelenka’s quick stick work helped him re-direct a shot from Hayden Gerwig past Avery with 14:20 showing on the clock. Patrick Ferris was also credited with an assist on the goal.
Just 19 seconds later, the Cougars’ Jacob Klapko ended Kooi’s shutout bid, cutting the Bucs’ lead to 2-1.
Grand Haven had another answer 2 minutes later, as Zelenka added his third — and most impressive — goal, somehow firing a shot from his knees with a Cougars’ defensemen draped on his back.
“It’s just gifted effort,” Gadbois said. “He’s missed four games with a concussion and for him to come back and play the way he did, it’s just credit to being a talented hockey player.”
Klapko took advantage of a Bucs’ botched attempt to clear the puck in their zone and scored to make it a 3-2 game with 11:13 left. But the Bucs buckled down the rest of the way and clinched another program-defining win.
With Grand Haven now completely healthy, they could be a very dangerous team come playoff time.
“We’ve had 17 games and this is the first time we’ve had a full team,” Gadbois said. “We’ve had to fight through some adversity.”
“We just got to keep the pedal down and keep working,” added Bucs’ defenseman Asa Pellegrom, who was a blur on the ice all evening. “We’ve got our full team back now and we definitely believe we have what it takes to reach the state finals.”